Interview with Donna from Sydney Aquanatal

It is no secret that staying fit while pregnant has tremendous benefits, but at what stage should you start exercising? Although fitness is subjective in a sense that what is a walk in the park for someone is a marathon to another, so how much exercise is safe exercise? What is recommended and what is off limits? And where can you find pregnancy tailored programs? If you’re new to all of this and find yourself asking these questions like I did, then you’ve come to the right place.

After doing some research I decided that water based exercise was the way to go while pregnant. Besides its multitude of benefits, the fun of being weightless in water when I was getting heavier by the day is all I needed. And that’s how I was introduced to Donna.

Let me tell you a little about Donna before we get into things. Donna, the founder of Sydney Aquanatal, is an amazing warm hearted midwife and fitness professional. Her knowledge on fitness and pregnancy is beyond exceptional. She could answer just about any question I had. So I had the opportunity to interview her, and girl, did I learn a thing or two.

Also, Donna will be running Aquanatal classes at a female only pool for the first time, at Oasis female fitness gym this March (in addition to other locations). Head over to Sydney Aquanatal for more information.

Due to background noise and the image being out of focus, I have included the interview transcript below.

Q1: Why is it important to exercise during pregnancy?

Keeping fit and active during pregnancy is essential to help your body cope with the physical changes that occur as your baby, and belly grow. Normal posture is altered, and strain is placed on the back, hips and other joints. Many women experience a variety of aches and pains as part of the normal pregnancy process.  Exercising safely, and keeping fit during pregnancy can reduce these aches and pains, and help you prepare for labour and being a mum.  Physical fitness and activity is essential for a healthy pregnancy.  Exercising during pregnancy has been shown in research studies to reduce the amount of weight gained, and also reduce the risk of developing Gestational Diabetes and high blood pressure. Women who do pelvic floor exercises correctly during pregnancy, have less risk of incontinence after delivery, and faster recovery of their pelvic floor muscles.

Improving your overall level of fitness is a great start.  Most of our women join pregnancy exercise classes around 14 weeks – once they have the all clear from their GP or obstetrician.   It’s never too late to start exercising, but like any exercise program, the earlier you start the greater the benefit will be.  Apart from general fitness, it’s also important to include pregnancy-specific exercises to strengthen the core muscles and the pelvic floor in particular.  These muscle groups are critical to help maintain posture, during childbirth and for the prevention of incontinence after birth.   A safe and appropriate pregnancy exercise program should ensure that your body is as ready as it can be for the demands placed on it during pregnancy and in childbirth, and as a mum.

Of course, after exercise comes relaxation and a focus on the body – which is also what a good exercise class should provide.  If that wasn’t enough, there is also good evidence to show that even a moderate degree of fitness will help women recover more quickly from childbirth.

I should just mention that whilst pregnancy exercise is generally safe and beneficial for most women, there are some pregnancy-related conditions where any exercise (including pilates or yoga) might be harmful to mother or baby.  So it is vital to ensure you have the OK from your health practitioner to start (or continue) exercising during pregnancy.

Q2: What is important for exercising safely during pregnancy?

Exercising safely is so important, especially during pregnancy.  Your body is changing and your exercise routine needs to change too.  Some exercises, which are easy and appropriate for non-pregnant women could actually cause significant problems during pregnancy.  For example working the abdominal muscles too hard can cause separation of the abdominal muscles down the centre.  Lifting heavy weights and high impact exercise can place pressure on the pelvic floor muscles causing incontinence.   High impact exercise during pregnancy places pressure on joints and may also cause lower back and hip pain.   So the first important step is to make sure your instructor knows about pregnancy and is qualified in the pregnancy exercise specific area they are teaching.  A high quality pregnancy exercise class must include pelvic floor awareness and exercises.  The instructor must also be able to monitor each individual in the class, and modify exercises accordingly for safety.

Here are my tips for exercising safely during pregnancy (see http://www.aquanatal.com.au/tips-for-safe-exercise/ for more details):

Exercise for fun: Pregnancy is not the time for competitive sports or to set new records. Exercise to maintain fitness and to prepare yourself and your body for the special challenges ahead.  If you normally exercise by yourself, consider joining a group of other pregnant mums. This is fun and has been shown to decrease your risk of post-natal depression.

Listen to your body: Slow down your exercise routine if you are becoming excessively fatigued. Vigorous exercise, contact sports and activities that carry a risk of slipping or falling are best avoided in pregnancy. Of course, if you are feeling fit and well, and are enjoying your pregnancy exercise routine, then have fun and keep going.

Adapt your activity program: Ensure your fitness instructor is aware of your pregnancy and has the knowledge to modify your routine to suit the different stages of your pregnancy.  Include pregnancy-specific exercises to strengthen the core and pelvic floor muscles, as well as breathing and relaxation.

Do not extend your joints beyond their normal range: During pregnancy your joints and ligaments become more flexible, but that also increases the potential for injury. Avoid any movements that jerk, stretch or over-extend the hip, knee ankle or elbow joints.

Avoid lying on your back: Tempting as it may be in the later stages of pregnancy, do not lie on your back. In that position, the weight of the uterus can put pressure on a major blood vessel, which can cause dizziness, nausea and occasionally even fainting. All exercises that involve lying on your back should be avoided after 16 weeks of pregnancy.

Focus on good posture: Correct posture is important at regular times, but even more so during pregnancy. As the weight of your bump changes your centre of gravity, activities like walking, sitting, bending down and lifting become more challenging. Research has shown that water-based exercise is particularly beneficial for backache. This is because targeted exercise in water gives the back muscles a rare chance to relax, and also maintaining stability in the water strengthens the core muscles.

Strengthen your abdominal and pelvic floor muscles: Strong abdominal and pelvic floor muscles will improve your posture and reduce back-ache during pregnancy and after birth. A toned pelvic floor is important for a good recovery after birth and to prevent incontinence. The earlier you can exercise and strengthen these muscles – even before pregnancy – the better. Ask your instructor to ensure you do the right exercises and how to do them correctly.

Keep your body temperature comfortable: The fetus is particularly vulnerable to increased temperatures in the first three months of pregnancy. Avoid raising your body temperature for prolonged periods and reduce your exercise intensity on hot or humid days. In particular, stay clear of hot spas and saunas whilst pregnant. If you are swimming or doing an aquafit class, check the temperature of the water.  Between 28 and 32 degrees is perfect. Most physiotherapy/hydrotherapy pools are much warmer than that and not suitable for pregnancy exercise – check with your instructor or the pool staff.

Drink plenty of water: Loss of fluid as a result of prolonged exercise or because you are not drinking enough water will affect your circulation and that of the baby. There is evidence that dehydration may even trigger premature labour. Ensure you have plenty of water to drink throughout the day and especially before, during and after your fitness sessions.

Go swimming: Whilst land-based exercise is fine in early pregnancy, most women appreciate the tremendous relief that floating weightlessly brings to their spine, joints and muscles. Water provides resistance without straining or jarring your joints, gives you a soothing massage and is great for your circulation. Swimming is great, or you could join an Aquanatal® class. Please note the use of buoyancy belts in deep aqua classes is not recommended during pregnancy.

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Q3: What is Aquanatal® exercise?

Aquanatal® classes are pregnancy specific aquafitness, and birth preparation classes run by midwives, physiotherapists who are also specially trained Aquanatal® Instructors.  The classes can be commenced from 12 weeks of pregnancy, and resumed again from 6 weeks after giving birth.  Aquanatal® Instructors can provide qualified guidance on the right exercises for each stage of pregnancy specific to each class participant.  An Aquanatal® class includes a light to moderate cardio workout, exercises to strengthen, your core and pelvic floor muscles, stretching, and relaxation.  Because of the buoyancy of the water, you can do Aquanatal® exercise at your preferred intensity without overloading, straining or jarring your joints. We use a variety of floats, aqua-dumbells and noodles.  During the flexibility section, the water supports your weight while gentle stretching exercises help keep you fit and supple. It also includes breathing and relaxation for active labour preparation.  You will meet other expectant mums and you will have the benefit of an experienced midwife or physio on hand to guide you and answer any questions you may have.  There’s also a good dose of fun and chat.

Not every pregnancy aqua class is run by Aquanatal®-trained instructors.  To find your nearest Aquanatal® class, check the aquanatal.com.au website.

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Q4: What are the benefits of Aquanatal® and how does it differ from other forms of exercise?

One of the benefits of Aquanatal® is that it is in the water.  Exercising in water in an Aquanatal® class reduced the risk of injury as all the exercises are pregnancy specific. Aquanatal® increases levels of stamina and fitness, which should help women achieve a more active, shorter labour.  Research has shown that Aquanatal® relieves back and pelvic pain, swelling and a myriad of other ‘inconveniences’ of pregnancy more effectively than land-based forms of exercise. This is because of the immersion effect and the ability to relax feeling weightless – especially in the later stages of pregnancy.

Aquanatal® is beneficial as all classes include Pelvic Floor exercises.  Regular pelvic floor exercises are very important.  Evidence from many studies shows that the benefits of pelvic floor muscles exercises are:

  • improved control over bladder and bowel function;
  • reduced risk of prolapse (i.e. ‘sagging’ of internal organs);
  • better recovery from childbirth or surgery;
  • increased sexual sensation;
  • increased social confidence and quality of life.

Like all exercise, Aquanatal® also releases feel-good endorphins that can help alleviate antenatal and postnatal depression. The companionship and good fun also helps.  Some women who have trouble sleeping have also told me that they get a better night’s sleep on the days they attend a class.

How is Aquanatal® different from pregnancy yoga, pilates, etc.?

As a water-based exercise, Aquanatal® has many advantages not available when exercising on land:

  • The buoyancy of the water supports your weight, making movement easier and helps to protect the joints from unnecessary strain and injury;
  • There is no risk of falling, sudden jarring or overbalancing when exercising in water;
  • Your baby is protected from sudden movements by the extra support and cushioning of the water;
  • The pressure of the water can have positive effects on body fluid balance and swelling; and
  • The variable resistance offered by water allows you to exercise muscles more efficiently, helping to prevent strain and injury.

Together, these provide effective exercise in a safe environment.  When it comes to relaxation, there’s nothing better than the wonderful feeling of weightlessness that water can provide.  Another important difference is that all Aquanatal® classes are run by specially trained Aquanatal instructors who are also qualified midwives, physiotherapists or other health professionals.  Nobody understands you and your needs better at this special time.

If you are interested in finding out more about Aquanatal®, visit our website at www.aquanatal.com.au

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